For Terry, the world was too much

“Unique” is a word much abused as a descriptor for human beings. I have heard many, many people described as unique, people who are actually a great deal more like other people than they would like us to believe. Scratch the surface of a gothic kid and underneath you’ll find someone who is most likely just as desperate to find his place and fit in as any fraternity boy. This is not a criticism — just an observation of how seldom we meet a truly unique individual, someone for whom being different is not a style, but a calling.

My friend, Terry Presnell, was a unique person. I thought he might be a poser, or simply an advanced prankster, back in high school when we were on the tennis team, and he wore a rubber Richard Nixon Halloween mask in a match against West Wilkes, our conference rival, and refused to take it off, despite the protest of his opponent and the other coach. Nothing in the rules against wearing a mask to play tennis, Terry said. He wore it, and won the match.

Terry wasn’t big on rules anyway. Rules came from institutions, as far as he was concerned, and he had great, venomous contempt for institutions — schools, churches, government, you name it. Like Huck Finn, he was afraid that institutions were out to “civilize” him, and when he looked around, he didn’t much care for what civilization had come to mean in this age — war, hypocrisy, tyranny, fighting over oil but not genocide. He didn’t want any part of that “civilization.”

For Terry, the continental United States was his Mississippi River, and he drifted all across this country, never allowing himself to become too “tied down” to any particular job. Over the years, he called me from all sorts of places — Las Vegas, Kitty Hawk, somewhere in New Mexico, the Keys in Florida. He kept as much as possible to warmer climates, with the beach as a special favorite. He took any sort of job he could find, even delivering newspapers if necessary. He basked in the sun, but he really thrived in the nightlife. Within a few days, he became a “personality” in any town he lived in, which was as natural to him as breathing, with his background in professional wrestling, radio, and gonzo journalism. He had been a columnist for several newspapers, even started his own rag in the Ozarks, which lasted for a good while until he got behind on some debts and then pulled a stunt that would prove to be the beginning of the end for him.

Terry owed some company $1,400, which may not seem like an insurmountable sum unless you don’t have it and can’t get it. He could have called his friends — we would have pitched in and got him out of a jam. But he had never taken charity from any of us, and wasn’t going to start then. So he thought of a way out. He drew up a fake death certificate, sent it to the company, and hit the road with everything he could take with him, leaving whatever was left behind.

This bad decision — which I can easily imagine Terry rationalizing as a silly prank that he would somehow make good on later — led to other bad decisions. I believe there were some counterfeit checks, identity theft, I can’t remember what all. He stayed on the run for months, but one night in Ohio he got pulled over on a routine traffic stop, and within minutes, it was all over. In some ways, it was a relief to Terry. As the bad decisions accumulated, there was just no way to keep going without making another one, to get him through the next day.

He went to prison for a few years, and we lost touch. Then, a little over a year ago, he reappeared in our hometown, about twice his normal weight, barely able to move. Prison had been hard on him. He had a variety of very serious health problems, and no real way to make a living. Some of us did what we could for him, donating furniture, a microwave, a computer, groceries, whatever he needed to get on his feet. But he couldn’t get on his feet, not in any meaningful way. Part of being Terry was being on the move, beholden to no man and no institution.

He got by in a dingy little rent-controlled apartment for about a year. I saw him whenever I got home, which was only a couple of times. We visited and reminisced and laughed a lot — he had the greatest laugh in the world. He laughed with his whole body, his shoulders literally shaking up and down if he was really amused.

The last time I saw him, right around Thanksgiving, he gave me a grocery bag packed full of movies and CDs. He said he was getting the hell out of Sparta and moving back to Hickory, a town where he probably had the most success in making a decent living and where he had become pretty well known for his column on pop culture.

Now we know the real story. He “moved” to Hickory as a launching pad for his last big adventure, a trip to Florida, where he spent the last days of his life driving around, sleeping in the car most likely, or on the beach, drinking beer, which he had not really been able to do much with his health in such poor shape. He wrote a few fond farewells to his friends, and assembled packages for a couple of people containing the most meaningful scraps of his life. Somehow, he managed to get a gun, which he used to shoot himself two weeks ago.

Another friend from the old days, Stewart, called me last week to tell me about it. Initially, there were no reports of a note, which didn’t sound like Terry. Sure enough, two days later, Stewart called me again and said he had received a package, along with a note, in which Terry basically said that with his health getting poorer by the day, he was looking at another lengthy hospital stay, dialysis, even worse. He quoted Neil Young, “It’s better to burn out than to fade away.” He said if the preachers were right, he was “probably headed South,” but he thought the company would be more interesting there anyway. He said if reincarnation turned out to be true, he might come back as a fat Chihuahua.

He said that if there was going to be a service, he wanted only for a few of his friends to get together, drink a few beers, listen to some music from the old days, and remember some of the good times. He said he absolutely did not want the service to be held in a church, or for there to be any preachers.

There was a service on Saturday, at Saddle Mountain Baptist Church in Ennice, N.C. There were preachers. One of them had talked with him a handful of times in the hospital, the other had never met him at all. I was asked to speak, too, so I got up and shared a few stories, but whatever I said was swallowed up whole by 45 minutes of pure alter call preaching. For these two fellows, Terry was not a person. He was a platform. His life had no meaning for them other than as a cautionary tale for the rest of us. At one point, the preacher said, “Since I didn’t know Terry, I asked God what to say here today, and God said, “Remember me,’” which, it turns out, is translated as a very long story about the preacher’s own salvation, and how, thank God, he had not made the choices Terry had made.

It turns out that most of the memorial service for Terry was not really for Terry after all. Several times, I thought about walking out. I wish I had. After the service, someone told me they wished I had had an opportunity for a rebuttal.

Well, here it is. I don’t presume to know where Terry is today, but if God has a sense of humor, Terry may be pleasantly surprised with his accommodations. On the other hand, those responsible for denying him his final wishes ought to be deeply ashamed. Like Huck Finn, Terry once faked his own death. Unlike Huck Finn, he did not get to watch his own funeral. If he had, he would have been outraged. I have known him for 35 years, and I can guarantee that much. He would not have been alone. I spoke with at least a dozen of his friends after the service in front of the church, and every single one of them was upset by the service. Someone said it was more like a revival than a memorial for Terry. Someone else said those preachers ought to be ashamed.

Sometime this spring, there will be another service, the one he asked for. Call it a memorial mulligan, a do over. We’re going to get together, play some of the old songs, and drink a few beers in his honor. Then we are going to divide up his ashes and take them to various beaches — wherever anyone is going on vacation this summer — and set him loose on the tide.

If I see a fat Chihuahua running loose on the shore, I swear I’ll bring it home.

(Chris Cox is a writer and teacher who lives in Waynesville. He can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..)

Quieting the monster cries

For nearly a year, my 3-year-old son Jack has been obsessed with heavy machinery. We rent films from the library with footage of backhoes, excavators, and bulldozers pushing around heaping mounds of debris, which Jack sits and watches with absolute focus as long as we will allow it. Whenever we are going someplace in the car, Jack erupts every time he sees a crane, a steamroller, or anything gigantic, mobile, and yellow that can lift or, even better, crush, things.

I don’t worry about it much. Crushing stuff is cool — I get that. I figure it is just a phase he is going through and that he will leave it all behind soon enough. For boys, life is just a series of meaningless obsessions until they’re old enough to notice and then obsess over girls, which crushes all their other obsessions like a giant monster truck rolling over a bunch of Volkswagens.

I guess I should have foreseen what would happen the first time Jack saw a monster truck. Before I really knew what was happening, he began obsessing about something called a “Monster Truck Jam.” I soon discovered that commercials for an upcoming monster truck extravaganza had been playing pretty much nonstop on television for the past few weeks. Every time “SpongeBob SquarePants” paused for a commercial break, there were “Grave Digger” and “Monster Mutt” rolling and rumbling over rows of crumpled cars.

“Daddy, I like Grave Digger! Please take me that monster truck show! Please daddy please!”

Soon, I found myself on the Internet looking at seating charts and ordering tickets, great tickets actually, on the lower level. My 7-year-old daughter, Kayden, decided she wanted in on the action, so I bought us three tickets and on Saturday, we drove down to the BiLo Center in Greenville to get a look at these monstrosities in action. The kids were so excited they could hardly stand it. We made up monster truck songs on the way down, and talked about all the great things we expected to see these monsters do.

We were pretty hungry when we got there, and thanks to a slightly late start and slow traffic, we had to settle for getting some food at the arena, which, of course, was a big mistake. I shelled out 25 bucks for two fossilized hot dogs, one rubbery hamburger, one order of charred fries in a cup, and one large soda in a cup that could have served as a swimming pool for a small otter. I had to carry all of this on a flimsy gray tray about the size of a potholder, while also holding onto the kids somehow and worming my way through a thicket of monster truck enthusiasts. Imagine, if you will, trying to climb a rickety ladder while balancing three hardboiled eggs on a popsicle stick with one kid on your back and another one pulling excitedly on your pocket, and you will have the basic idea.

Of course, our seats were on the other side of the arena, and by the time we made our way around the arena and finally reached the ramp leading down to our seats, the cup of French fries, top heavy with the addition of ketchup, took a sudden suicidal leap off the tray onto the floor. Four dollars, shot, just like that.

“I guess we won’t be having fries, huh, Daddy?” Kayden said, surprisingly chipper under the circumstances.

Once we found our seats, I was somewhat startled how close to the action we actually were. Wow, the kids were going to be thrilled with these seats, I thought. The brightly colored monster trucks were arranged in a semi circle on our side of the arena, and the closest truck was no more than 40 or 50 feet away.

We had made it just in time. I had no sooner passed out the food than the announcer took the mike to begin the show. A few seconds later, the drivers appeared to wild cheers from the crowd and assumed their positions behind the wheels of the trucks. The kids were leaning forward in their seats with anticipation.

Suddenly, there was an enormous explosion that rocked the entire arena, pinning the kids back against their seats, transforming their looks of eagerness into expressions of abject terror. The explosion did not subside — it was constant, all enveloping noise, noise more monstrous than the trucks from which it issued. It was merely the sound of the gentlemen starting their engines. Merely. I looked at the kids. Both were weeping.

“Daddy, I’m scared!” Jack said. “Please take me home right now!”

“Please, Daddy, get us OUT of here,” Kayden agreed.

I quickly reviewed the numbers. Fifty bucks for the tickets. Twenty-five bucks for two dollars worth of food. Another twenty for gas. Four hours of driving. Fifteen seconds of “entertainment.”

I tried putting my hands over Jack’s ears, while urging Kayden to cover her own ears. Still, they wept, harder, since it appeared that the ordeal had just begun.

I saw it was no use, and ushered them out of the arena, away from the terrible noise. I was ready to take them out for ice cream, or to go in search of some local park to salvage something from the trip, when an idea occurred to me.

“Hey, guys, what if we go up higher, far away from the trucks where it is not as loud? If you are still scared, we’ll leave in a few minutes, but let’s just try it.”

They were in no way sold on this idea, but they could see that I was determined to give it one more shot, so they played along. So we gave up our expensive, choice seats and headed to the upper level, up, up, and up some more until there were no more seats behind us and we had an entire section more or less to ourselves. From here, the monster trucks were not so intimidating, the noise not quite so earsplitting.

The kids were still uncertain when we settled in, but they stopped crying, and in a few minutes, when I stole a glance to my left, I could see Jack nodding his head in the affirmative, as if in response to some internal question he had asked himself. Yes, I can. Yes. Yes.

“Daddy, look at the one with the ears and the tail!” Kayden shouted with something like enthusiasm. “His name is Monster Mutt! He’s my favorite!”

Two hours later, I had experienced my first Monster Truck Jam. We made it through. By the end of it, I felt like one of the few survivors in the Poseidon Adventure. We had climbed out of the wreckage below to the hull of the ship, and were now waiting for someone to cut us out with a blowtorch.

“Did you have fun, Daddy?” Kayden asked, as we waded among thousands trapped in the flow, slowly oozing like tree sap in the general direction of the exit. I thought of Woody Allen’s comment on reincarnation. “Does it mean I have to sit through the Ice Capades again,” he wondered. There are no more Ice Capades. But there will be other Monster Truck Jams.

Then I looked at my two children, now buzzing with excitement like miniature monster trucks waiting to unleash their own torrents of noise on mom as soon as they got home, stories of enormous trucks crushing things, and motorcycles jumping off ramps, and dune buggies racing around the track!

“Fun?” I said. “You bet I did. One of the best times ever.”

I looked at Jack, who was nodding again. Yes. Yes. Yes.

I didn’t need to review the numbers again. This time, it all added up.

(Chris Cox is a writer and teacher who lives in Waynesville. He can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..)

Not a social networking butterfly, but I’m out of the cocoon

Of course I had HEARD of Facebook. I may be well into the marrow of middle age by now, but I am not completely out of touch with all things modern. I teach in a college, and I’m around young adults every day. If I don’t quiz them about what’s new and hip (which would not include the word “hip,” for example), I do absorb some things by osmosis. I have an iPod for instance, which is easier than carrying around a Walkman, which was easier than carrying around a boombox. As long as the latest technology makes life easier and I can still listen to Neil Young and the Stones on it, I’m all for it.

Still, I saw no reason to get myself a Facebook page, until I caught up briefly with a long lost relative of whom I have always been quite fond, and she suggested that it would be a good way for us to stay in touch, even share photos of the kids and such. I would be able to read her “profile” and see what movies, music, and television shows she was into these days, which is something I have always taken a perverse interest in doing with people I meet, as if the ownership of six John Cougar Mellencamp albums could tell you all you need to know about someone. I know a guy who won’t date a woman unless she likes John Prine, so maybe there is something to it.

I discovered that it is fairly easy to set up a basic Facebook page, especially if you don’t take the time to upload photographs or go into much depth in filling out the profile information. Within minutes, I had myself a profile that can best be described as “rudimentary,” and within an hour, I had my first Facebook friend (my cousin). We exchanged a couple of messages, and I was able to read her profile and see pictures of her, the family, friends, pets, and so forth. Although she suggested that I at least put up a photograph and add a little bit of information to my profile, I really had no intentions of doing anything else with my Facebook page. I had accomplished my mission of catching up with my cousin and establishing a pathway for future contact, and that was all I wanted or expected.

Then a strange and wonderful thing happened. I got a message from Robin. Now, as it happens, my wife and I had just been at my mom’s house a few weeks back, and mom had found some old keepsakes of mine in the attic, including a folder with several essays written by a bunch of fifth-graders. The essays were about me, because I was “Student Of The Week” that particular week in October of 1972. Not only was there an essay written by Robin, there were several others that mentioned Robin. Evidently, we were something of an item, at least so far as I could decode the murky symbolism of grade school romance.

Now, 37 years later, Robin lives in Pittsburgh and her children are grown. Before we had exchanged two messages, I had messages from four or five other classmates, none of whom I had seen or heard from in years, even decades. By the end of the week, we were having a cyber class reunion, with messages flying in all directions.

Finally, just last week, I got a message from a fellow named Thomas. He wanted to know if I was the same guy that taught English at Appalachian State in 1988. I recognized his name right away. He had been one of my favorite students, the type of student who is a class clown, but is secretly very smart and serious about school, so long as you don’t blow his cover. Because I ended up getting another job and moving away a couple of years after I taught his class, I didn’t know that he went on to graduate from ASU with a major in English. He now lives in Concord with his wife and two children, and he has become an endurance athlete. He says he is coming to Asheville on business sometime this spring, and we are going to find some time to meet for lunch while he is here.

One of my former classmates, Jerry, is up to 660 Facebook friends. My 15 pales in comparison, but I am so inspired by my collection of new/old friends, that I finally did put up a photo — of my son — and a video of both my kids singing “Yellow Submarine,” which is getting good reviews so far.

Maybe I will put up a few more photos, or post an inspirational quote or two. I obviously need to spruce the place up a bit, since you never know who might drop in for a visit.

(Chris Cox is a teacher and writer who lives in Waynesville. He can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..)

Signs that we are growing up

Sparta, N.C. – I am on my way to town to get a birthday cake for my son, Jack. He will be 3 years old tomorrow, but we are celebrating tonight, so that all the family can join in the celebration while we are in town. I am thinking what every parent thinks when a child’s birthday rolls around: He cannot be 3 already. How can time possibly move so fast?

Too close to call

The most fascinating race for President of the United States in my lifetime could have become a good bit more settled after the Super Tuesday round of primaries. Hillary Clinton, the “establishment” candidate and heavy favorite going into the primary season, might have delivered the knockout blow to upstart Barack Obama. Instead, she managed only to hold serve in the biggest states that she absolutely had to have — New York, New Jersey, and California — and emerge on Wednesday with the very slightest of leads in delegates. It was enough for the Clinton campaign to declare the night a success, which it had to do as a show of confidence.

Oh, the glorious memory of boredom

George Bernard Shaw once said, “It’s a shame that youth is wasted on the young.” If that is true, then I would also add that it is equally a shame that boredom is wasted on the bored.

Turn and face the change

Are you ready for a change, I mean a REAL change? The candidates for president of the United States are clearly ready.

Remember – every year is a new year

So it’s the New Year. The ball has dropped, the parties are all over, your Kool and the Gang album has been tucked away for another year, and Dick Clark has gone back into his jar of formaldehyde. Did you make some New Year’s resolutions? I just bet you did. One great thing about Americans is how plucky we are. Every year, we make various resolutions: to lose weight, contribute more to charities, write more letters, be better neighbors, and watch less television. And every year, let’s face it, we fail miserably.

You cats dressed in blue, this is for you

(Editor’s note: Smoky Mountain News columnist Chris Cox delivered this address to the graduating class at Southwestern Community College this past weekend.)

A couple of days after I was asked to deliver this address, I asked my creative writing students if they had any ideas about what I should say. One of them said, “You should say something funny. Definitely funny.” But then one of them said, pausing for effect, “What if you try to say something funny and no one laughs?”

Christmas past is what we’re aiming for

As you know, the Christmas season these days begins about 20 minutes after the last of the trick or treaters have collected their candy, and lasts until the last college bowl game is over, which used to be on New Year’s Day, but is now closer to Valentine’s Day. In other words, it goes on forever, no doubt driven more by the greed of consumerism than the true spirit of Christmas.

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